Wednesday, September 3, 2008

360 Jo'burg: A City Not So Different

By: Emily Johnston, Jason Koele, Megan Lee and Paul Theiss

Arriving in Johannesburg we were met by our CGE staff, led to our kombis (vans) and headed off down the poorly paved streets of the other side of the world. No sooner had our adventure begun, we encountered swarms of malarial mosquitoes, stampeding elephants, and packs of rabid street dogs. Thank goodness that everybody back home had warned us of these dangers and equipped us with ample medication…

While the former descriptions are often those ingrained into American heads—through the media, through a general lack of education on sub-Sahara Africa, or through exoticized travel brochures—we actually found ourselves in a modern city of cell phones, congested traffic and large shopping malls. Johannesburg, at first glance, is a city not so different from our own.

After arriving in Johannesburg, we spent the first few days learning about South Africa’s recent liberation struggle from the former Apartheid regime. We visited many museums, and heard from various speakers of differing perspectives in order to build a more complete picture of issues such as the government, Apartheid, life growing up, and so on.

With the weekend came our first home stay, which we found was not much different from life back home. Our stay with our first host families was much like weekends in the US, filled with chillin, chicken and church. The families that we stayed with in Soweto, a township ofJohannesburg, were similar to our families back home.

However, Soweto is a township that was formed during the Apartheid government.

This system separated people by race and was a “modern form of slavery.”[1] We found that the families we stayed with are people just like us trying to make it through life and maintain hope. Topics of discussion ranged from politics, cars, music, history and life in general. In talking with our home stay families, we found an uncontested allegiance to the African National Congress (ANC), the current ruling government party instated in 1994 at the end of the Apartheid Regime. The ANC had great intentions coming to power, but has been faced with many challenges leading to corruption and lack of progression for the needs of its people.

As we drove further into the city, we discovered another township called Kliptown. Here we found widespread poverty, unsanitary conditions and congested housing. Running through the rain cut paths were many children eager to hold our hands, play games and meet these strange visitors. We were reminded of our younger neighbors and siblings as these kids were curious and fun-loving—unaware of the ongoing struggles their parents face. Rather than drinking from a drainage ditch, the people fought for their humanitarian right to clean water. Just recently, the South African high court ruled in favor of the anti-privatization of water. There is a saying that comes from South Africa that states, “When Soweto sneezes, the rest of the country catches cold” [2] Kliptown, being a part of Soweto, rose and fought against the government decision, and South Africa has certainly been swept into a furry of discussion. It is a small but necessary step to building a better future for this young developing country.

Even though South Africa is a developing country, in the grand scheme of Africa, it is a driving force economically and politically. Much like the US, South Africa spends much of its energy trying to stabilize neighboring countries. They are an African superpower and everyone wants a slice of the pie.[3] Many refugees from the north are coming in looking for work and a better life. This is quite similar to the situation in the US with our neighbors to the south. And both our families, here and at home, have mixed reactions to the influx of people into their respective nations.

Although differences exist, the similarities between our two nations are much stronger . In our short stay in Johannesburg, it is the personal connection, rather than materialistic fervor that has made our stay wonderful. A real sense of community within the neighborhoods we stayed and the love of family in which we were cared for centered our new understanding of African life. It wasn’t the things that our host families or the speakers gave us, or what we gave them, but the passion, caring and love they showed which made our stay welcoming and experiential. We have discovered a home away from home, a world not so different than our own, and memories which will last forever.

Photo Captions

1. Former power plant cooling tower, now iconic symbol of Soweto.

2. Antoinette Sithole, sister of Hector Pieterson (who was killed in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings)

3. Homestay house.

4. Megan cooking dinner during her homestay.

5. Peace for Soweto graffiti

6. Drainage ditch in Kliptown (the runoff is from an upper class neighborhood). Children sometimes play/swim here for lack of better facilities.

7. Kliptown youth and CGE students.

[1] Sithembele “Stakes” Khala, former liberation struggle activist and Robben Island. Johannesburg, South Africa. prisoner: conversation on August 19, 2008 in

[2] Molefi Mataboge, former liberation struggle activist, conversation on Aug. 18, 2008 in Johannesburg, South Africa

[3] Journalist during liberation struggle, conversation on August 19, 2008 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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